Dialogue is easy to imagine and terribly difficult to write. It’s often called the hardest part of writing, and many writers who’ve mastered the other elements in their novels find their dialogue holding the rest of their book back. The difference between good dialogue and not so good dialogue is what separates amateur writers from the pros, so today we’ll take a look at how to make your dialogue seem natural and believable.
“Said” is NOT Dead:
Something that tends to trip writers up hails way back from their grade school days. Well meaning teachers would tell their students that “said is dead” in an effort to get them to find more creative ways to indicate who was speaking. But this was poor advice.
The truth is, in this industry, “said” is king. Because our brains have seen the word so much in life, we tend to skip over it entirely making the dialogue itself stand out. By using other words to indicate the speaker, like “growled”, “snapped”, “whispered” or the most hated of all, words that describe an action not speech related at all like “smiled” (who smiles a word?), our brains pay extra attention, making the dialogue feel watered down and putting the reader very much back into the printed words and less into their imaginative theater of the mind. If a long string of “said”s makes you nervous, insert a few attribution tags in the middle of the line (“I loved it,” she said. “It was a moving song.”) or intersperse them with beats. Sparingly use “said the man” instead of “the man said”.
Also, never attach adverbs after or before said. You want your readers to not just understand the emotion but to feel it, and that’s hard to pull off when you as the writer practically scream it to make sure they understand it. Let the character’s actions show they say something angrily, it gives your reader more credit. Make whether they said it softly or not irrelevant based on their body language (and their wording). Don’t patronize your audience by literally spelling it all out, and don’t fall back on lazy writing by telling them an emotion outright.
If “said” is king, physical beats are the ethereal angels singing. Not only does adding beats between writing break up long strings of dialogue and also show who is speaking, it makes the writing pop with both verbal and physical meaning. It allows the writer to show their character’s feelings in a more profound way than telling their tone of voice ever could.
Your character could mumble their line, or they could run their hand through their hair, letting it fall back over their face like a mask. They could scream the words, or they could slam their hand on the dining room table, making the tableware jingle. They could say their piece nonchalantly or thoughtfully, or they could flick the ash off their cigarette or swirl the last sip of whiskey around the bottom of their glass. They could say something surprised, or the food could drop from their fork and their mouth could hang open.
Not every line should be a physical beat, however, and they should be used to avoid a noticeably long string of “said” attributions or when the dialogue needs it to explain (which should be rare). Too much and you risk taking your reader’s thought line away from the dialogue itself and exhausting them. Mix beats in with “said” and experiment with how it reads silently and sounds aloud.
The Name Game:
There’s few things worse in dialogue than your characters using each other’s names every time they address them. It gets redundant to have your characters refer to each other by name every single line. Allow your beats or your narration to reveal that if you need to.
Ditto for using other indicators like “sis” or “cousin” or “my dear friend”. Often, it reads as if you’re trying to bash your reader over the head with information you already gave them. They already know your protagonist’s familial relationship with their sister if you’ve told them (and do make sure to, don’t get sloppy and reveal that sort of thing in dialogue exchanges because nobody approaches their siblings and immediately begins with “Hey sis”, they more often either use their name or, more commonly, know the person knows their talking to because they’re looking right at them!)
Another name note: don’t switch up what the character is called throughout the scene. That means no flipping between “Mrs. Holloway said” and “Mary said” and “Mary Holloway said” and “the teacher said”. Pick one and stick to it throughout the scene.
Avoidance, Misdirection & Misunderstandings:
Far too often, dialogue seems stilted because we try to make it read as natural despite knowing it’s fiction. We have our characters answer every question directly. But in real life, we rarely speak that way.
Let your characters avoid questions, or answer the unasked question. “Did you know they were dating?” doesn’t have to be answered directly. Allow your character to skirt the question. “I haven’t seen either of them in months” or “I don’t know why it matters, you’ve been dating that guy from the office for weeks now, haven’t you?” Ask a question in response to a question, let your characters dance.
Or let them misunderstand. “Did you get it fixed?” “Yeah, I worked on the car yesterday, got it all lined out. All it was–” “Not the car, Jerry. Did you talk to the bank?”
Allow characters to interrupt each other or change the topic. Mimic real conversation but keep it interesting–you don’t want it so real it becomes a boring small talk scenario where the weather and family are discussed politely and your reader gains nothing from the conversation.
People tend to carry on conversations in massive run on sentences. Full stops are pretty rare in today’s world. Writing should reflect that in a logical way.
“I don’t see why you would think that. I didn’t find it rude at all. Just honest. Stop being a prude!” This is great and all, but most readers will find it somewhat less than realistic. Let’s try without all of those full stops.
“I don’t see why you would think that, I didn’t find it rude at all, just honest. Stop being a prude!” See how it reads more natural? You can even add the attribution in the middle (“…I didn’t find it rude at all,” she said. “Just honest…”) and dispense with the exclamation point unless you find it absolutely necessary (though the scene itself should let the reader know how worked up she is without the extra explanation).
Perhaps your character is hesitant to reveal something, trails off, or the reader can only hear one side of the conversation. Use an ellipses (…).
Maybe your character is being cut off mid-sentence. Use the hyphen (–)
How It’s Said:
Just as few people have the exact same lexicon and formality in their speech, so should your characters have the same variation in theirs. What your characters say matters, and so does how they say it.
A first year college kid is more likely to say “That pisses me off” than “I find that rather irritating”. A prim and proper matron will “that was a surprising turn of events” sooner than she’d say “I didn’t see that coming!” Be sure the formality and language matches the character you’ve created, and make the speaking character evident in how they say things.
The key to amazing dialogue comes down to letting it speak for itself without drowning it in unnecessary explanation and trusting your reader to understand the underlying meaning through the character’s wording, body language, and actions. Never, ever, explain your dialogue. A careful use of beats, well crafted lines and realistic subversions all add up to stellar and believable back-and-forths.
What do you think of dialogue writing? What areas of it do you notice yourself falling back on, and how are you going to improve going forward? Tell us below!
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